Our guests gathered in the Groucho Club for our latest breakfast club to listen to wagamama’s People Director, Thomas Heier, reveal the magic behind the casual dining restaurant.
Before we start, it’s worth saying that wagamama has been a true passion project for us. Not part of the project team myself, reports back from the team – about a truly unique culture, a vibrant place where people care deeply and genuinely flourish – had made me eager to hear the story first hand.
After a round-the-table hellos and introductions to our friends from WeWork, Burger King, Topshop, Selfridges, Allsaints, Arq and Burberry, our very own Doug Hewett kicked things off and invited Thomas to start the conversation off at wagamama’s beginning.
Picture 1992 London with its overly formal, overly heavy and largely unhealthy dining offer – that’s when wagamama burst into life. A true celebration of Asian food and inspired by fast-paced, Japanese ramen bars, wagamama’s doors opened to reveal communal seating, handheld order recorders and impatient dishes, served as soon they’re ready, to be savoured at their best.
Totally new and totally original, Alan Yau had created big boots for the restaurant to keep filling.
But what happened next was even more interesting, wagamama had become an employment haven for alternative individuals. Your background didn’t matter, your looks didn’t matter – all you needed to work there was willingness to learn and personability. Pink hair? Great. Piercings and tattoos? Love them.
This total acceptance inspired the ‘Be you. Be wagamama’ recruitment campaign that invited individuals to work in a space without judgement or prejudice, a space where people could just be themselves.
Fast-forwarding us to 2017, Thomas told us that he knew he was joining a business that was special. Inside it was a business that talked openly and excitedly about the wagamama magic – but when he pressed no-one was able to articulate it for him.
Everything existed in Folklore, messages were passed down in sentiment and in stories. Tales were favoured over comms and the wagamama magic lived on never captured or distilled for all to understand.
When People-Made were asked to put our fingers on the ‘wagamama magic’, we found a culture that rejected alternative exclusivity in favour of total inclusivity. We found an overwhelming caring culture with a deep Kaizen philosophy running through it. The result? A safe environment that inspired ‘good change’. The restaurant harnesses and fosters ‘restless spirits’, teaching them to create forever and always lookingfor ways to make things better.
This culture of care, passion and good change created an army of fiercely loyal employees who wear their scars with pride and go to extreme lengths to help each other. Personal stories of struggle to success were overwhelming.
But don’t think for a second, it’s mushy or soft… Oh no. Each restaurant is run with extreme precision. Reminiscent of an F1 pit lane, each chef station set up in exactly the same way, so that any chef (from any location) can come in and hit the ground running.
Another secret to wagamama’s success? Rigour. With strict rules in place, a lot of the day-to-day decisions and processes are all taken care of. The tight structure is actually conducive for innovation because it allows employees to focus on their craft and creativity rather what’s happening next.
Thomas told us that decoding the wagamama magic, wasn’t just about putting their finger on what made them special today. It was an essential tool to protect what’s special and help it grow.
Taking us to the present day, Thomas describes how their new purpose has inspired wagamama’s ‘open mouths, open minds’programmes where they’re raising awareness and working hard to encourage more conversations around mental health. Enlisting Bryony Gordon, Matt Jonhson and Dr. Chatterjee among others to help them, wagamama are having open, honest conversations that are as funny as they are frank to get people comfortable with opening up.
There’s no doubt that the future’s bright for wagamama. They’re gearing up their US launch, opening new locations across the UK and preparing to launch their hotly anticipated ‘grab and go’ food concept mamago later this year: ambitious growth plans underpinned by careful planning and humility.
I hope you feel inspired by the wagamama story. I certainly did. Thomas’ talk left us all feeling (to borrow a phrase coined in the session) a little bit fizzy: full of inspiration and ideas, all excited to share them as we headed back out into the sunshine.